Cigar Aficionado

Cognac Champions

Between single malts, single barrels, small batches, special finishes and super ages, it sometimes seems like whisk(e)y has a stranglehold on new product development. But just when it seems that there is no other brown spirit in the world, a Cognac comes out that reminds us of the deep heritage of these brandy makers from a comparatively small area in the south of France and the remarkable range and virtuosity they are capable of.

Take, for instance, Hennessy’s new Paradis Impérial (about $2,700, pictured). It is meant as the really, really good version of what is already some tip-top juice: Paradis Extra. To give you an idea of its heritage, the Cognac pays tribute to a special order fulfilled in 1818 for Sophie Dorothea, the dowager empress of Russia. Its rich blend contains eau de vies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that were kept in the company paradis (storehouse of exceptional spirits).

Bottled in glass demijohns once they mature, they represent the palette of flavors that master blender Yann Fillioux used to construct a brandy of enormous finesse and complexity. The latter quality is what stuns the palate. Decidedly floral and fruity, with notes of tangerine and orange, jasmine and roses, it simultaneously manages savoriness with nuts, cinnamon spice and a hint of crème brûlée. Add to that a finish that will follow into your dreams. For such a Cognac, Hennessy went to designer Stephanie Balini for the crystal decanter with an 18-karat gold-plated label.

But Cognac, for its diminutive size, is a very complex region from which all manner of stunning creations are possible. Courvoisier has just released its L’Essence Du Horse ($3,500), a packaging of its high-water-mark L’Essence Du Courvoisier to salute the Chinese Year of the Horse (see page 25 for cigar accoutrements with a similar theme). It follows last year’s Dragon tribute. Remy Martin’s Louis XIII, synonymous with exquisite Cognac, threw us a curveball last year with Rare Cask editions. The product of one specially selected cask, it is an anomaly in the Cognac world, which prides itself on the talents of its blenders. Debuting with Cask 43, 8, it followed that up with its 42, 6 ($22,000) in the fall at a slightly higher proof than normal (85.2). On that high end, Martell also has its L’or de Jean Martell ($3,600).

Lest we forget, Cognac is a much more complex region than even its larger houses suggest. Such smaller makers as Camus, Frapin, Fussigny, Louis Royer, Otard and Pierre Ferrand are quite capable of reaching great heights as well. Hine just marked its 250th anniversary with a vintage edition from 1953 ($15,000). Moreover, cask hunters like Nicholas Palazzi of PM Spirits often come up with very interesting finds, sourced through individual grape growers, who ferment and distill their own reserves.

And no one needs to be reminded, that Cognac makes a great cigar partner.